Opinion

Felix Salmon

Wine globalization datapoint of the day

By Felix Salmon
January 5, 2010

Please don’t anyone tell Jonathan Nossiter about Vines of Mendoza, I fear he might never recover. Vines of Mendoza is the epitome of everything Nossiter hates about the new world of wine: it’s all about globalization, homogenization, and money, rather than love and memory and terroir.

Vines of Mendoza was set up by a chap called Mike Evans, who bought a 920-acre plot of wine land in Argentina in 2006, and immediately started selling it off in chunks as small as three acres, at upwards of $50,000 per acre. The whole thing is done by remote control: you sign on for say three acres, and then get sent 28 8 different numbered-but-unlabeled bottles of wine from the region. You drink them all blind (after all, you don’t have a clue what they are), and after telling the company which wines you liked the most, they will pick a plot for you which is best able to produce that kind of wine.

As anybody who knows anything about blind tasting will tell you, this is a recipe for ending up with highly alcoholic, oaky, sweet, fruity reds. Any halfways-serious would-be winemaker would go to the region in question, find out about its history and the varietals growing there, drink various wines — not blind — from various vintages, talking to the different winemakers who made them, and slowly try to work out how to take local grapes and transform them into something with character and maybe a little bit of one’s own personality.

What Evans is offering is the exact opposite: a “turnkey opportunity” (yes, they really say that) where the ostensible winemaker never needs to see or smell or touch the grapes or the land they grow on. It’s a new expensive hobby for billionaires: grow wine right next door to a vineyard overseen by Nossiter nemesis Michel Rolland! And kid yourself, while doing so, that it’s an investment:

An acre of land in the Uco Valley presently costs one-fifth of the amount of land in the Napa Valley. This provides a good opportunity for those seeking investment in a quality wine production.

It’s pretty silly to think that anybody with a three-acre plot of land in Mendoza will ever be able to sell it at a profit — certainly not before Evans has sold out his inventory, at any rate. Insofar as there will be any secondary market at all for these things, it will be controlled by Evans. And any real would-be winemaker is going to want a lot more than three acres. This is vanity winemaking, as seen all over Napa, but at lower prices and without even the superficial veneer of being a commercial enterprise. What’s more, Evans is happy to explain to anybody who’ll listen that there’s a strong inverse correlation between wine production and wine quality: the fewer bottles you produce, the higher the quality of the wine in them. Which is probably true, if you judge wines on the degree to which they resemble a jar of high-alcohol blackberry jam.

There is one good thing going on here, though. If you’re the kind of person who believes that small, low-production winemakers nearly always make better wines, then Vines of Mendoza might finally be the entity to disabuse you of that fallacy. And if you’ve got $150,000 to spend on a wine adventure, I can think of many better uses for that money than buying three acres of land in Argentina to produce a few thousand bottles of wine functionally indistinguishable from all the other Malbecs out there.

Update: Evans responds, both in a comment on this blog, and on his own blog. Also, Vines of Mendoza tells me that the information they gave me originally is incorrect: they supply 8 bottles to drink blind, not 28. What’s more, you don’t have to drink them blind if you don’t want to, although Vines of Mendoza recommends that you do: they do supply you with separate information on the wine in each bottle.

Comments
7 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

I tend to agree with your post, but without wanting to defend Vines of Mendoza, they have another interesting business that I very much enjoyed when I was there. Their tasting room features presentations by local winemakers to tourists that promote argentinian winemaking practices and techniques. There’s a very nice and unpretentious Q&A in English and Spanish and you get to sample some of the winemaker’s wine for a very small cost. If you are in the amazing region of Mendoza, this is can be a stop worth your while after visiting some of the region’s vineyards.

Posted by julien_to | Report as abusive
 

I would have to agree with the last commenter. I also went to Arg. and visited the Vines of Mendoza. I feel like you might be going a bit far in your article here Felix. I understand what you are saying…but:

1) Argentina is amazing
2) Mendoza is one of the best places to visit in Arg.
3) The Vines was very quaint and the vineyard tour was stunning.

Vanity winemaking it may be; however, it would be pretty neat to own a vineyard if I had the extra money. Have you been there? Seems like this article was a bit out of left field……

Plus – it is a solid business idea…even if you don’t agree with it.

Posted by caddy311 | Report as abusive
 

Olfactory visions of good wine and chimichurri.

Worst marketing idea ever:

Malvinas terroir.

Posted by Uncle_Billy | Report as abusive
 
 

Felix,

Many thanks for taking the time to compose this post on The Vines of Mendoza, but I have to disagree with some of the points in here. I’m the first to admit we’re open to feedback and constructive criticism – in fact, I welcome it as a way to improve this business. But the fact is, the crux of our model is simply based on an unabashed love of wine and winemaking, not one of globalization.

You wrote about the benefits of winemakers visiting the region and learning about the history and connecting with the winemakers – and contrasted that with Vines’ “turnkey opportunity.” Yet it’s not so black-and-white. The Private Vineyard Estate owners have the option to manage the process as much or as little as they’d like, based on their commitments or personal preference. We’re making the possibility of vineyard ownership become a reality for these people, and we’ve seen the joy it’s brought our owners through the time and dedication they’ve given to their own vineyards.

I can certainly appreciate your perspective on my company, but I felt it was imperative that I responded with my thoughts as well. The Vines of Mendoza was started from an intense love and admiration for the winemaking process, and it’s something that our Private Vineyard Estate owners share. You’re welcome to visit us in Mendoza any time!
In the meantime, please visit my blog for more thoughts on this – here

Thanks,
Michael Evans | CEO and Co-Founder | The Vines of Mendoza

Posted by M.Evans1 | Report as abusive
 

Felix: I don’t see why you’re so upset about this one. I don’t think anyone who can’t afford the money is likely to spend it on a vineyard in Argentina. Rich people have bought many stupider things (bad houses in Florida swamps, Damien Hirst art, individual bottles of wine that are probably undrinkable due to age). Owning a small vineyard could be pretty cool and those who don’t like this company’s terms could go out and develop their own vineyard site.

Posted by najdorf | Report as abusive
 

would first like to point out that, while this article is certainly strongly-worded, the author fails to make any definitive statements about what exactly it is he is so opposed to about The Vines of Mendoza. Is it the globalization? Possibly. The quality of the wine? Maybe. The price? Hard to tell.

That aside, I think the main problem with this article is that it completely misses the point of the project. I really think TVOM offers something unique in South America in the mix of Argentineans and Americans working together for a common interest.

Furthermore, I think some of the points that Felix Salmon slammed The Vines of Mendoza (TVOM) for are precisely what make it so much more than “an expensive hobby for billionaires.” What The Vines offers is the possibility to achieve a previously-unattainable dream, complete with the liberty to involve oneself as much or as little as one desires. Why this “remote-control” aspect should count against the company is anyone’s guess. It would be ridiculous to suppose that most wine-enthusiasts have either the time or money to live on a vineyard year-round. So why not enjoy the product of a few acres – a couple thousand bottles, I might add – secure in the fact that the land and harvest is being taken care of when one is not able to be always in Argentina. It seems ridiculous and pretentious to quibble over the detail of whether or not the owner’s lack of physical presence means his or her interest in and love for wine is merely a “vanity.” Furthermore, as the author himself points out, the entire venture, while certainly not cheap, comes at a fraction of the price of land in Napa or France. Therefore, these two defining aspects of the company – the price and the degree of involvement – are precisely what make TVOM so different and so much more accessible to the non-billionaire wine enthusiast.

Lastly, I think Salmon overlooked the cooperative aspect of TVOM, and how much this group-mentality affects the culture of the company. In the same way that you can be slightly or very involved in the harvest of your own grapes, TVOM also provides the opportunity to become a small or large part of a business venture.

Julian F. Bedel

Posted by Nailuj | Report as abusive
 

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